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Human Sacrifice in the Mycenaean Age

A recent archaeological find on Mount Lykaion in central Greece has caused quite a buzz.  The remains of a young man, missing the top portion of his skull, laid on an east-west axis in an ash altar suggests that rarity of rarities in Greece: evidence of a human sacrifice.

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The altar and the young man date back to the end of the Mycenaean period, about 1100 B.C.  A sensational find of a Bronze Age Minoan sacrifice interrupted was found in the late 70s at Anemospilia, on Crete.  That dated from circa 1700 B.C.  No such find has ever been made on the Greek mainland till now.

Days ago, when this story broke, I posted links on Twitter, only to have one angry Greek follower insist that the news was propaganda and a hoax, and that the Greeks never practiced human sacrifice.

Yet for a culture that supposedly never carried out human sacrifices, the Greeks certainly dwell on it enough.

While the Greeks seem to have abandoned the practice of human sacrifice by Classical times, there are certainly hints that in times of distress their forebears might have offered a human to the gods.  The legends abound with tales of human offerings: the sacrifices of Iphigenia and Polyxena that served as tragic bookends to the Trojan War, Achilles' gruesome offering of twelve Trojan youths at Patroklos' funeral, Minos' tribute of Athenian youths to the Minotaur, the maenads tearing apart Orpheus, Pentheus, and so forth.

Legends, you say, are not archaeological facts.  Yes, but legends don't arise from nothing; there is usually a kernal of truth to such tales.  Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, and others told of a distant past in which men sacrificed other men (and women) to the gods--although, in their contemporary age, their distaste for these ancient rituals comes through.  Euripides, for example, was so troubled by the Iphigenia story that he wrote two plays about her: Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Taurus.  He renegotiates the Iphigenia story so that Artemis spares the young woman's life by substituting a deer on the altar, yet the goddess also spirits the princess of Mycenae away to serve as high priestess of her cult in Taurus, where the people regularly sacrifice strangers to the goddess.

Back to the archaeology, one of the Pylos tablets refers to offerings to Zeus and Hera: one gold bowl and human for each.  Certainly, it's enigmatic.  The man and woman being given might be intended as human sacrifices, but to serve in a sanctuary.  It's not definitive evidence, no, but given that this tablet was produced just a few days or weeks before Pylos was burned and abandoned, at a time when the entire eastern Aegean was going through a catastrophic upheaval, it is possible that the Pylians tried to avert disaster by making a rare human offering.

Another such possible offering was discovered in the ruins of a house near Therapne, Sparta.  The skeleton of a woman with her hands behind her back as if tied (the restraints would have disintegrated long ago) suggests she might have been a sacrifice.  Alternatively, she might also have been a murder victim.
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I mention the cult of Zeus Lykaion in my most recent novel, Danae.  This was a werewolf cult, in which the adherents believed that through ritual they could for a time become werewolves.  According to legend, in ancient times King Lykaion ruled the area.  He instituted the worship of Zeus on the mountain that bears his name, but a time came when his hubris overruled his good judgment, and he prepared a feast for the god containing both human and animal meat, to see whether the omnipotent god could tell the difference.  Angry, Zeus either slew Lykaion and his sons, or transformed Lykaion into a wolf.

According to Plato and others, a sacrificed boy would be cooked along with a sacrificial animal, and those who partook of this grisly feast would become a wolf for nine years.

The indigenous, prehistoric peoples who predated the Mycenaeans were known as Pelasgians,  Arcadia, where Mount Lykaion is located, was a holdover of Pelasgian culture long after much of Greece was Hellenized.  So those who offered the young man to Zeus Lykaion lived at the end of the Mycenaean period, but may not have been Mycenaean themselves.

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